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Dinosaur Trail Golf Club: Golf in Alberta's Badlands

Andrew PennerBy Andrew Penner,

DRUMHELLER, Alberta - The Tyrannosaurus Rex stood 20 feet high, was 40 feet long, and weighed six bone-crushing tons. If you happened to come across one on your stroll to the supermarket - or during play at the Dinosaur Trail Golf Club - it would, with one quick swipe of its sickle-like claws, unzip you from head to toe, spill your gooey innards and ravenously eat you like you were a piece of tofu. Its serrated, razor-sharp teeth, the size of bananas, would snap your bones like Popsicle sticks.

You would go quickly and rather quietly, the beast's belches and raucous snorts of delight drowning all sounds of your feeble, pointless struggle. Thankfully, the chances of encountering a blood-thirsty T-Rex these days is nil, but at the Dinosaur Trail Golf Club, a unique 18-hole romp through the bone-littered badlands of Alberta, the experience sizzles with carnivorous overtones.

When you think about a straightforward, conventional golf experience, don't think of the Dinosaur Trail Golf Club. Well, at least don't think about their one-of-a kind - and I mean one-of-a-kind - back nine. Routed through the awesome sandstone formations and arid canyons near the town of Drumheller, an area rich in dino finds, the Dinosaur Trail Golf Club's back nine offers an experience unlike any other in Canada. And, if you make it through alive, you'll no doubt have a strong opinion - yea or nay - about the course and the hang-on-for-dear-life experience of negotiating your way around it.

The sleepy town of Drumheller - just 7,800 dino meals, er, people, live here - is famous for one thing: dinosaurs. In 1884 the first dinosaur discovery was made along the banks of the Red Deer River. Joseph Tyrell, a geologist working for the Canadian government, came across what he called, "the large and perfect head of a gigantic carnivore." Since then thousands of dino bones and skeletons from hundreds of different species have been unearthed. In the mid 1980s, in an effort to give tourism a boost in the area, the Canadian government approved construction of a massive museum that would be devoted entirely to palaeontology. Today, the Royal Tyrell Museum is often regarded as the best in the world if you want to see dinos. Almost half a million people from all over the world visit this impressive museum every year.

But for those who venture here (Drumheller is approximately an hour and a half northeast of Calgary, Alberta), the intense drama of the badlands can also be experienced on the local golf course (or, at least on the back nine).

The Dinosaur Trail G.C. is the epitome of a Jekyll and Hyde course. In this case, the opening nine is a feel-good appetizer, a user-friendly stroll that features riverside holes and flat fairways that sweep through chutes lined with cottonwoods. It's an auspicious, unglitzy start for the all-out assault that waits on the back.

"It's really like playing two courses," says likable Head Professional Phil McCluskey. "You can certainly get into tree trouble on the front, but on the back nine the trouble is, well, much different, much deadlier."

"Deadly" is a pretty good word to describe the par 5 that starts the roller-coaster back nine - the nine that, really, everyone talks about. To get to the 10th tee, and the possible train-wreck that awaits them, golfers have to punch their carts (it's riding only on the back - and, trust me, that's a good thing) up a steep hill to get to a panoramic perch. Looking back down the hill the oasis-green beauty of the front nine unfolds along the Red Deer River, but everywhere else the ancient and eroded sun-baked browns of the badlands fills the canvas.

At a time like this, the golfer cannot help but marvel in the might, be stirred by the awesome power of water and time. But the golfer must also wonder how the remainder of the round will turn out, for anything can happen from this point. Solid, laser-straight shots (that appear so good) can be unfindable as fairways have an uncanny way of falling into never-never land when you least expect them to. Likewise, shots that look to be following suicidal lines can, with a hidden oasis of grass, turn out picture perfect.

But the 10th is the epitome of a hole where any number can be made (that is, until you play the 11th, then the 12th, 13th, etc.). The fairway on 10 cruises atop the butte, lunging between two bone-dry ravines where any shot more than 30 feet off line will meet a dusty death in the bottom of a canyon. However, squeeze it between the drop-offs and you'll have a chance to knock it on the generous green in two. And such is the theme throughout: clench your teeth and hope you find grass, for if you do, the approach shots are quite doable. But clearly, for the average player, the badlands on the back nine will exact a heavy toll and many golf balls will be donated to the cause.

Really, out of the nine holes on this wild and woolly side, there are only three holes where the golfer can stand on the tee and say, "Yes, I know what to do. This makes sense." The rest, for the first time player anyway, will be hit and hope.

The question is then, is this great golf? Is it worthwhile, making the effort, only to be frustrated with lost balls and a hit and hope round? In my opinion, therein lies the answer. If the enjoyment of your "game" depends on score, on predictability and holes that won't yield undeserving results, then it won't be fun for you. In fact, you'll probably find the whole thing quite distasteful. However, if you like a little adventure, if you can look beyond your final number (they do consider this one of the hardest nines in Canada), if the awesome beauty of an ancient dino-land makes you tingle, you might just consider these to be hallowed grounds and have the time of your life. That is, until the water in the pond on six starts to ripple and stir, and, in the distance, you hear a growing thunder, a definite and reverberating thumping of the ground. And you wonder whether or not your 3-iron will be enough to fend off a six-ton beast.or if you'll end up dino tofu.

Stay and Play

With tourism a thriving business in Drumheller, there are a number of newer hotels and motels to choose from. The Super 8, newly renovated with waterslide and pool, is a comfortable place to stay (1-888-823-8882). Also, the Best Western Jurassic Inn (1-888-823-3466) has numerous amenities and is probably the finest hotel in Drumheller. There are no "stay and play" packages available with the golf course. For a complete list of accommodations available, including campgrounds and B&Bs, go to dinosaurvalley.com.


Before nary a dino has stirred, you can fill your gullet with a heaping pile of melt-in-your-mouth flapjacks at Whif's Flapjack House (open at 6 a.m. and conveniently located on the way to the golf course). For lunch and dinner, the steaks are often the juiciest at Stavros Restaurant in the Best Western. Or, if you need a big fill, the smorg at Fred & Barney's is always popular with the locals, a sure sign that it'll be good enough for visitors as well.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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